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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 11, Op. 103 ‘The Year 1905’ (1956-57)
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. 2019, MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester, UK
Reviewed in stereo

As most Shostakovich mavens are well aware his Symphony No. 11 has often been called “a film score without a film.” That's a good description of it, not just because it is programmatic and carries subtitles for each of its four movements, but because its music paints vivid pictures and captures the dark feelings of the time, using themes from nine “revolutionary” songs relating to the work's subject matter. The symphony depicts the atmosphere of revolution and a 1905 slaughter of several hundred peaceful demonstrators that occurred in the Palace Square in St. Petersburg in January, 1905. The event came to symbolize the injustices of the Tsar and eventually spurred on Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries to overthrow him in 1917.

While ostensibly that is what this symphony is about, some have claimed it's also a veiled depiction of the 1956 uprising in Hungary that was brutally put down by Soviet forces. In his very informative album notes David Fanning neither endorses nor rejects this claim, but suggests another way to see the work—that it is a statement against “any kind of state repression...” Fanning goes on to say the interpretation of all this is left to the listener. I've always believed that musically speaking, at least, it doesn't matter what event or idea you believe is being depicted here. That is, however you view the meaning of the symphony won't or shouldn't affect your enjoyment of it. Consider that both pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet listeners have praised it, each from considerably different interpretive vantage points. True, your view of the symphony's meaning will certainly affect whether you see Shostakovich as kowtowing to Communist Party authorities or secretly condemning their actions. Of course, a few will see him in another way, as a true believer in the Soviet Marxist state who was neither kowtowing nor dissenting, but expressing his true feelings instead. After all, the Twelfth Symphony followed shortly, clearly a celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, with no dissident message.

Whatever the case, the Eleventh Symphony is, like Nos. 2, 3, 7 and 12, not one of Shostakovich's stronger efforts in the genre. The Eighth and Tenth symphonies are true masterpieces and coming after them the Eleventh, to me, doesn't rise nearly to their level. Still, there is some fine music in this lengthy work, which I believe comes off best with tempos on the brisk side. Finnish conductor (and violinist) John Storgårds, however, offers decidedly expansive pacing in this account. The first movement, subtitled 'The Palace Square,' is very atmospheric here, vividly enacting Shostakovich's dark, grim portrayal of the oppression and unrest in early twentieth century Russia. The BBC Philharmonic play very well for Storgårds, effectively delivering his very precise and subtle shadings in dynamics and accenting, the percussionist quite compelling in depicting the ominous character of the kettle drum motif.

The revolutionary song themes are phrased in a mostly straightforward, nicely detailed manner in their deliberate pacing, and Storgårds generally lets the music speak for itself, the orchestra playing with accuracy and commitment. Yet, because Shostakovich withholds his most stirring and climactic music for the ensuing movement, not much actually happens here, as thematic development is quite limited and emotions are held in check. The expansive tempos merely underscore this rather static sense, and the resultant first movement timing of 17:40 is laggardly compared with that of the following performances: Kondrashin (Melodiya) – 12:33; Vasily Petrenko (Naxos) – 13:46; Neeme Järvi (DG) – 13:48; Barshai (Brilliant Classics) – 15:27; Haitink (Decca) – 15:53; and Slovák (Naxos) – 16:31. It is much the same in the remaining three movements here, making this at 66:45 the most expansive account of this symphony on my shelves. Kondrashin, by contrast comes in at about 54:00 and Petrenko at 57:38, but a upload of a spirited live Gergiev/Mariinsky performance has a duration of just under fifty-three minutes! (I'm aware of the 72:24 version by Rostropovich on LSO Live, but won't be hurrying out to get it.)

The second movement ('The Ninth of January') goes somewhat better here. Storgårds subtly builds the tension throughout, again with a fine sense for phrasing the music to point up meaningful detail. The climax of the movement, which depicts the slaughter of the unarmed protesters, is quite vividly brought off, the percussion battery doing impressive work in delivering this crushingly powerful music. That said, no one here comes close to the performance of this passage in Haitink's Royal Concertgebouw effort, as the snare drum delivers some nasty strokes of what sound like rim shots and perhaps other percussion effects, quite unlike any other recording I know of. The third movement ('In Memoriam') is perhaps the strongest part of Storgårds' performance. The theme from the revolutionary song 'You fell as a victim' is well phrased by the violas and here the movement brims with atmosphere, this time with a sense of sorrow and lament. The playing is very soft, the pacing very slow once more, though now with good effect. The more agitated and intense music in the interior of this panel is also well conceived and sensitively played.

The finale ('The Tocsin') is quite compelling in this performance too, even if the pacing is again a bit relaxed. There's much inner detail evident and Shostakovich's colorful scoring is enhanced by especially fine brass playing from the BBC PO. The bells used at the end are church bells borrowed from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and are thought to be used here for the first time since Mravinsky's 1959 premiere recording. (Rostropovich's live performances apparently often featured church bells.) One can certainly notice a difference between their sound and that of the tubular bells used for possibly all other recordings of the work. The ending does come across most effectively here, with the bell sonorities ringing out long after all the others, thus underscoring the meaning of the subtitle of this movement—'Tocsin' means warning bell or alarm bell.

Overall, I would assess this as a good performance of the Symphony No. 11, with many virtues including the vivid, well balanced sound reproduction provided by Chandos. That said, I prefer the brisker performances of the aforementioned Kondrashin, Petrenko and Barshai, though the latter, possibly still attainable in its single disc version, is more commonly available in a complete set of the symphonies.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Brian Wilson ~ Terry Barfoot

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